The Road Not Taken, or Why I Hated Hate Robert Frost
A few years ago, my son had a paper to write about a poet who wrote about war imagery and I asked my son and daughter which poets they liked, and my daughter blurted out, “I hate Robert Frost.” I said, “like, as in Robert Frost the ‘The Road Not Taken’?” She said, “ya, he’s just boring.” I thought about this and realized I didn’t particularly care for Robert Frost, either. And I realized it was not necessarily for his poetry. I didn’t like his poetry because it got me screwed. Let me explain. A long time ago, in elementary school, we had a poetry recitation contest. We had to get up and recite a poem and the winners of the class went on to the school competition, those winners then went on to the district competition and then those winners went on to the state competition, etc. I was very excited about this. I daydreamed about going to a National Competition! I loved writing and loved reading. Robert Frost was a name I knew, so I chose a poem by him. Unbeknownst to me, “The Road Not Taken” was one of his most popular poems. I don’t think my 10 year old brain knew that at the time. Truth be told, I stopped on the poem as I flipped through the pages of a poetry book. Which was my version of, eeny, meeny, miny, moe. Nevertheless, I made my choice.
My Epic Fail
I was out of school sick right before the auditions for our class representative, so I hurriedly got up on stage in the large auditorium, pleased that I had picked and prepared a poem even though I had been home sick for much of the week. I was excited and ready to recite that day. As my nervous, chubby hands gripped the pages, I spoke with feeling and understanding. I understood the gist of the poem and I hoped I was expressing it to the teachers who were judging me out in the audience. I looked out and one of the boys was picking his nose again, but that didn’t bother me as I continued to speak slowly, and with feeling and understanding beyond my years. Or at least that is what I thought at the time. I quickly got in the zone. Abrubtly, one of the teachers interrupted me and said, “That’s time. You’re too long.” I said, “What? I didn’t finish.” She said, “you had a time limit and you went over. So thank you. NEXT!” As I held back the tears, I blurted out, “but no one told me!” It is not a long poem, but I had read it so slowly and with so many pauses I went over the time limit!
Through the years as I thought about Robert Frost or that poem I always felt dread in the pit of my stomach. When my daughter brought up his name, I felt it again. And then I reflected on that fact and thought, when it came to Robert Frost I had not taken the road less traveled. Everytime I heard his name or thought of that poem my mind went straight to negativity. Just like my daughter said, my own brain would say, “I hate Robert Frost.” This negative path was well worn in my brain. I just kept reinforcing all the negative feelings and memories connected to Robert Frost and that day. You see, there was more than just not getting into the contest. I also felt embarrassed, humiliated and almost like an outcast from the group that got the instructions right. I took a risk and got knocked down. I remember Robert Frost and that poem with such dread because of all the feelings it brought up for me. Throughout my life, I took that negative pathway many times and reinforced it. It was the path of least resistance. Our brains are like that. It’s easy. No work at all. Just keep firing away and going from point A to point B. That neural pathway becomes ingrained, so ingrained we don’t even know it exists and then when we do notice it we feel helpless to change it. Moreover, the act of going down that path becomes reinforcing, strengthening the negative connection even more. So having a negative thought actually makes it more likely to experience a negative thought. Now, whether I think negatively or positively about Robert Frost poems was not going to have a great impact on my life. But let’s face it, we have many thoughts a day and if we continue to stay in that negativity loop, there will be some thoughts that will definitely have an impact on our lives.
Negative Thoughts and Fear
For me I found lots of negative thoughts around risk taking. The kind of risk taking that helps one to grow, not the “jumping-out-of-airplane” kind of risk taking. I had proof after all, I thought, that risk-taking was a bad idea. Look at my Robert Frost debacle. I got up in front of all those people and crashed! Somehow I had generalized that memory and the negative feelings that came along with it. It’s not like I particularly remembered that incident every time I was faced with a challenge. That’s not how the brain works. (Don’t worry I’m not going to get all “neuroanatomy” on you). The emotion and the fear is really what came up when I was faced with risk-taking behavior and fear was the easy “go to emotion” for me and to quiet the fear, I avoided the behavior I was fearful of taking. Sound familiar? The memory of the actual incident was way, way in the back of my brain. Just the negative feeling was prominent. I didn’t see the connection between the memory and the feeling. I created a pathway in my brain that reinforced avoiding risk. It was a well-worn road. I wanted to change that.
I also didn’t see there was another road. However, the day my daughter, son and I talked about poets I found myself where “two roads diverged,” a la Robert Frost of course, and was quite surprised. “Hey, there’s another road!” my brain screamed. What if I did something different? I let the dread fade. Emotions are fleeting after all and I can choose to let them go. Also, let’s admit it no emotion really sticks around forever. It usually climaxes and subsides. Once that dread subsided I saw the road not taken very clearly. The road was an opportunity. I had the opportunity to create a new road or a new neural pathway. I could begin to reinforce positive things about myself and feel the fear and take the risk anyway.
Choosing a New Road
Creating a new neural pathway will take work. We want to normally go down the easy road, without a doubt. To create something new means we are going to have to work at it, claim it, own it and create habits and behaviors that reinforce the new pathway. The new pathway needs to be well worn before it becomes automatic, hence, why change is so hard. I was definitely guilty of giving up way too soon before creating a new habit. So, I made a commitment to create something new in my life. A new vision, an opportunity to take risks. Even this blog piece is a risk of sorts. I am want to start a dialogue with you about developing the strengths you already have and incorporate them into your life so you can become unstoppable and achieve your dreams. That is definitely going to take some risk taking behavior, on both our parts. Do you agree? I hope one day I will look back and say what my good friend Robert Frost had to say about roads, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
To begin to change our neural connections and make positive changes, we are going to need to do a little work. We may need to change some habits and behaviors. The good news is a little goes a long way. You don’t have to do it all at once.
Here is an exercise to try that might help create some positive pathways.
At the end of the day write down just one or two things that you did great that day. It could be something small, like I had one cookie instead of two. Or big, like I made a donation to a cause or helped someone change a flat tire in the rain. You need to write it down. The act of writing will help your brain start firing in a different way. Now, you can’t negate the good thing with something negative. Just keep it short and sweet and simple. Try writing down one thing each day for a week. Come back and tell me how it went. Start noticing the positive as the first step to making big changes.
Take a look at the road you want to take next in your life and think about the emotions or negative thoughts that might be holding you back. Commit to make the change and start noticing the emotions and thoughts that come up. Try doing one small thing where you still feel the emotion, but do the task at hand anyway.